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The meaning of the shofar, and the how-to

_JStandard
Published: 03 September 2010

Sounding the shofar in the synagogue on Rosh HaShanah is the high point of my year.

How to Blow

No other mitzvah in Judaism is so dependent on a personal skill or entails such high drama. And, at least for me, no other mitzvah renders quite the same sense of achievement and fulfillment.

I often hear people talk about the awakening power of the sound of the shofar — how awesome a moment or how inspiring an experience it is for them to hear it. For me, it is both a very public and an intensely personal experience.

As I approach the bimah, I find myself quite alone, concentrating intently on what I have to do. Yet I am also highly conscious of being surrounded by hundreds of people who are relying on my ability to enable them to fulfill the central observance of the day.

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Veteran shofar-blower David Olivestone sounds the shofar. Orthodox Union

In Numbers 29:1, the Torah designates the first day of the seventh month, that is Rosh HaShanah, as “a day of blowing the shofar.” The Oral Law, as interpreted by the rabbis, sets out a number of regulations concerning both the instrument itself and the manner in which it is to be sounded.

The shofar must be fashioned out of a ram’s horn. With the smaller end cut off, the horn is straightened out a little by heating it, so that a hole can be bored through it. A mouthpiece is formed out of the horn itself. No finger holes or reed or valves — such as you would find on other wind or brass instruments — may be added to help vary the notes. Thus, the only control you have over the notes is how you use your lips and your tongue.

How to blow

To produce a note, first use your tongue to moisten the extreme right-hand corner of your lips, and place the shofar firmly against them in that spot. With your lips tightly closed, make a tiny hole in them where the shofar is, and then force air into it as if you were making a Bronx cheer (a rasping sound), but without actually producing such a rude noise.

If you get it right, a bright and powerful note will emerge from the shofar. The tighter you squeeze the shofar against your lips, the higher the note that you will sound. It’s not necessary to puff out your cheeks; breathe in and hold the breath in your chest, letting it out slowly to control the length of the note.

The three mandatory sounds

The sequence and the length of the notes must follow the established pattern with great accuracy. The three mandatory sounds are designed to awaken thoughts of repentance and of subservience to God in the mind of the listener.

First comes the teki’ah, a long, clear note of alarm. This is used to bracket each of the other sounds, which are meant to be evocative of crying. The shevarim, a three-part note, suggests the sound of sighing or moaning. The teru’ah, consisting of nine rapid-fire staccato sounds, dramatically echoes the sobbing of someone in despair.

One hundred notes, in various combinations, are sounded at intervals throughout the Rosh HaShanah service, and each set is capped by a teki’ah gedolah, an extra-long note in which many also hear a sign of strength and hope.

Not too many people persevere enough to become really proficient at blowing the shofar. Many of those who do learned the skill from their fathers at a very young age, as I did. But each year, it takes much practice over a month or so both to perfect the notes once again and to retool the muscles of the lips and the strength of the lungs.

The sound of my thoughts

Since there’s no real way of controlling the quality of the shofar’s sound, you can never be 100 percent confident that the right sound will emerge. So whatever spiritual thoughts I might try to have as I prepare myself to sound the shofar usually evaporate as I begin, and I am left simply hoping that, despite my trepidation, the notes will come out as perfectly as they did when I was practicing.

Yet being in control of the shofar’s power is an extraordinary privilege and responsibility. Sometimes I like to think that the next teki’ah or the next shevarim could be the one that carries the congregation’s prayers soaring to the heavens. Sometimes I pray that this wordless animal sound that I am producing will have the ability to take the place of the prayers that are unspoken — those that words are inadequate to express.

I will not deny that I enjoy the congratulations and the handshakes that are offered to me after I sound the last teki’ah gedolah. And what am I thinking at this point, when it’s all over? That in just one year, with God’s help, I will get to do it again.

JTA

 
 

Shofar time is here again

Tips of the trade

Lois Goldrich
Published: 09 September 2011
Workshop will demonstrate that shofar-sounding is not difficult
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At Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, it is never too early to start learning the art of sounding a shofar. Pictured in the top row are: Jason Weinberg (with shofar), Bruce Weinberg (with shofar), Brian Reiff, Evan Reiff (with shofar), and Craig Weisz (instructor). Bottom row: Hannah Mathilda Weisz (with shofar) and Evan Shein. Courtesy Naomi Weinberg

In classes promising to teach participants to “toot your own horn,” Craig Weisz , a member of Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson and the husband of the synagogue’s religious leader, Rabbi Debra Orenstein, hopes to demonstrate that sounding a shofar “is not all that difficult.”

“My 5-year-old daughter can do it,” he said, as can his 7-year-old son.

While there are different levels of preparation — including the spiritual aspect, “understanding the meaning of the shofar and what it’s about” — Weisz said he will be focusing on “simple technical tips.”

“It’s not a musical instrument,” he said, acknowledging that professional musicians might nevertheless have some advantages in playing the ram’s horn. “You make a raspberry sound with your lips and put the shofar near your mouth.”

Weisz said playing the shofar is almost “counterintuitive.”

“You don’t blow into it,” said the Teaneck resident. “I’ll try to get [attendees] to understand what to do with their mouths. It’s not about pressing it hard; it’s about being relaxed.”

Weisz said he has sounded a shofar for many years, but became more knowledgeable about it several years ago when he attended a workshop in Los Angeles. He noted that the mitzvah is not to sound a shofar but rather to hear it.

“When I am blowing it, I am not performing a mitzvah but rather helping [the congregation] to do a mitzvah,” he said. “I’m particularly aware of the purpose. It helps you to focus on the preparation.”

“It’s not about the size of the shofar,” he added. “When you understand that without feeling daunted, with a little guidance you can get a good sound. The goal is not to get a full pure tone but to get something. That’s all that’s required.”

Weisz’s workshops will take place at the synagogue on Sept. 11 and 25 at 9:30 a.m., and Sept. 23 at 6:30 p.m. For additional information, call (201) 265-2272 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Shofar time is here again

Precision counts

Lois Goldrich
Published: 09 September 2011
Observing the rules of shofar-sounding

There is no verse in the Torah commanding Jews to sound a shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

“You can quote me on that,” said Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, religious leader of Fair Lawn’s Shomrei Torah Orthodox Congregation. “The fact that we use a shofar and not a harmonica or a tuba is based on oral law.”

For that matter, said Yudin, Rosh Hashanah is not named in the Torah, either, but simply called “the first day of the seventh month.” The Torah tells us to remember the teruah, or blast, on that day, later called yom teruah. “But it still doesn’t use the word shofar,” said Yudin.

Indeed, aside from the shofar blast heard during Revelation on Mt. Sinai, the shofar is not mentioned again until the section dealing with the jubilee year.

“There, the Torah says that once in 50 years we will sound the shofar on Yom Kippur,” said Yudin. “That’s why we sound it after Yom Kippur today, to remember that someday in the future we will sound a shofar on the Yom Kippur of a jubilee year.”

Since the Yom Kippur shofar-sounding takes place in the seventh month — and Rosh Hashanah occurs during that month, as well — the rabbis held that the shofar should also be sounded on Rosh Hashanah, said Yudin.

As for the different notes blown on the ceremonial horn, Yudin explained that the Torah speaks about horns used in the desert for different purposes — for example, when the Israelites traveled, or when leaders were called to a meeting. Horn blasts were named teruah and tekiah, but the two different verses in which they are mentioned invert their order.

“So the rabbis said that every teruah is to be preceded and followed by a tekiah,” he said.

“The Torah doesn’t leave anything to your imagination,” added Yudin, describing the character of the notes, or blasts. “God forbid there’s a war, you sound a teruah, telling us that this is a sad note, a cry. We’re also told that on your happy day, to celebrate, you sound a tekiah.”

“So the sounding on Rosh Hashanah is happy, sad, happy,” he said. “On one hand, the basic idea of Rosh Hashanah is that every individual is born with great potential. That’s happy, positive.” But everyone needs to acknowledge sadness, as well, “crying because we’re reminded that not everyone lives up to their potential.”

Still, he said, “We don’t stop on a down note. We follow every teruah with a tekiah. We can turn things around, make them better.”

Yudin pointed out that the tekiah is a steady, unbroken sound; while the teruah is broken, or choppy.

“The world at large has used the same system in air raids,” he said. “Take cover is a sad, broken note; all clear is an unbroken sound, like the tekiah. We had it first.”

Yudin, who can be found on the bimah during the High Holy Days timing the shofar blasts, said the Talmud teaches that the length of a tekiah should match that of the teruah. Since there are three variations of the teruah — shvarim, “a sigh, with at least three blasts; teruah, a moan, with at least nine sounds, and a combination, shvarim teruah” — the length of the tekiah will itself vary.

For example, he said, shvarim is approximately three seconds; teruah, between three and four seconds; and the combination from six to seven seconds.

“The one calling [the notes, known as a baal tekiah] has to know what’s going on,” he said. “The baal tekiah needs to look at his hand or else he will keep going.”

The rabbi said that while, in theory, anyone can sound the shofar, “We always looked upon this not simply as blowing a horn but as a call to repentance. So generally speaking, the more the person is himself going to listen to the message of the shofar and internalize it, the better representative that person is.”

 
 

Shofar time is here again

Something old, something new

Lois Goldrich
Published: 09 September 2011
Shofar-sounders prepare to follow new mahzor
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Temple Emeth’s Carly Etzin honing her shofar-sounding skills at home. Courtesy Carly Etzin

Teaneck’s Temple Emeth has not had to look further than its religious school graduates to find accomplished shofar sounders.

According to Rabbi Steven Sirbu, religious leader of the synagogue, his congregation relies on two alumna to sound the ram’s horn on the High Holy Days.

“The older of the two, Jessica Firschein, is in her mid-20s and does all her preparation on her own,” he said. The younger, 15-year-old Hillsdale resident Carly Etzin, has been working with Jessica and the rabbi to prepare for the holidays.

“Jessica was looking for an apprentice,” said Sirbu. “She did a class after religious school four years ago and drew about 10 students. Carly was one of them.”

Having sounded a shofar since age 11, Carly says she was inspired by Jessica’s example. “It seemed like a fun thing to do,” she said, noting it has been something of a challenge to manage her breathing. But Jessica has helped her master the skill.

“She said to practice holding your breath and sounding it out slowly,” Carly explained.

Last year, Carly sounded the shofar at both the main service and the family one.

“It was so nice,” she said of the family service. “All the kids sit on the bimah. It’s nice to watch them enjoying it.”

Having learned the importance of shofar-sounding in Hebrew school, Carly said she’s always excited as Rosh Hashanah approaches because “I love doing it. It’s a good thing to do for the temple.”

According to Sirbu, Jessica has been the shul’s main shofar sounder for several years. A song leader at the Reform movement’s Camp Harlam, “She brings a certain musical element to blowing the shofar.”

Sirbu said that in addition to good breath control and “the patience needed to practice until it’s right, a shofar-blower is like a place-kicker in football or a relief pitcher. They have to work well under pressure. They have one chance to do it right.”

The rabbi pointed out that shofar-sounding in his synagogue has always been done in the service three times consecutively after reading the haftarah. But this year, for the first time, the congregation will follow a different format.

Explaining that Temple Emeth is piloting the morning service of the Reform movement’s new mahzor, he said that “the re-envisioned mahzor pictures the service like a work of classical music, in three movements.” Thus, shofar sounding will now take place in three distinct parts of the service. “I doubt it will affect [the shofar-sounders],” he said, “though it might make it easier, giving them a chance to rest.”

In addition, the new mahzor adds shofar calls in two places they haven’t appeared previously. “There’s a single blast very early, before we declare ‘God, majestic one,’” he said, “like a trumpet announcing the king.” Later, in the prayer Unetane Tokef, the shofar will be sounded during the passage referring to the instrument—“And the great shofar will sound.”

Sirbu noted that at the most recent convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, held in New Orleans, “We spent a whole session being updated on the philosophy and goals of the book.”

The rabbi said that sounding the shofar “is a form of being a shaliach tzibur, representative of the congregation.” Therefore, shofar-sounders need to be Jewish and above bar and bat mitzvah age.

“They also need to be able to blow it well,” he said, explaining that the congregation allows children below b’nai mitzvah age to sound shofar at the family service “to groom younger shofar blowers and set them up as role models.”

Some of the youngsters, he said, view the sounding of tekiah gedolah, the long final blast, as a kind of contest.

“We’re trying to discourage that,” he said. “The point of the shofar is for [listeners] to be called to attention as members of the congregation of Israel — not to break some record.”

 
 

Horning in on a seasonal sound

Turning an animal’s horn into a shofar takes over a year

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Seventh-graders at Boys Town Jerusalem take a deep breath before testing their prowess at the complex art of “shofar” sounding. A shofar can be made from any kosher animal, with ram’s horn popular with Ashkenazim, while many Sephardim and Mizrachi (especially Yemenites) prefer the curvy horns of the kudu antelope. Courtesy Boys Town

Rishon LeZion, Israel — The primitive music of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is supposed to stir reflections on repentance. This year, when you hear the plaintive notes, you might also think of Avi Mishan sorting through antelope horns in South Africa.

Mishan, 44, owns one of Israel’s four major shofar production facilities (the others are in the Golan Heights, Haifa and Tel Aviv). He and his 14 employees turn out thousands of shofarot (the plural of “shofar” in Hebrew) to sell here and abroad. “Right now, we have new clients from Paraguay and Mexico,” he says.

“Shofar” is often translated as “ram’s horn,” and indeed the most common shofar is made from the horn of a male sheep that is at least a year old. It can come from any kosher animal, however. Yemenites prefer the long, curvy horns of the kudu antelope, and Mishan has prepared 2,000 or more of these each year since starting his business six years ago. He also makes an equal number of the traditional Ashkenazic shofarot.

“I have a vision to give to everybody the opportunity to use the shofar,” he says. “The shofar is a connection with the Master of the Universe.”

The shofar is mentioned in the Bible more than 80 times, a fact that is prominent on the website of The Great Shofar (www.thegreatshofar.com), an Internet-based business owned and operated by Aaron and Michal Shaffier of Tekoa, a small town south of Jerusalem to which they moved in 2007 from California. The shofar was sounded before the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, and its blast toppled the walls of Jericho for Joshua. It is also heard on the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and at the end of Yom Kippur. In biblical times, it was also sounded to announce the beginning of a jubilee year.

“We sell about 100 per month all year,” says Aaron Shaffier. “Surprisingly, before Rosh Hashanah we have only a slight spike in sales. That’s because the majority who buy them are not Jewish. We have customers in Arkansas and Louisiana, and all kinds of small towns, because apparently Evangelical Christians interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity like to have a shofar to display or to blow in church.”

The Great Shofar products, which range from $33 for a plain ram’s horn to $400 for a silver-encased show model, are shipped primarily to North America. Customs regulations on animal-made products make it difficult to send them elsewhere. “A lot of people in Korea want to order from us, but we haven’t figured out a way yet,” says Shaffier, a scribe who is his synagogue’s shofar-sounder.

Shaffier sources his horns from Mishan’s factory, which uses methods that have not changed much for thousands of years, except for the polishing machines.

The process begins in South Africa, where Mishan and his counterparts sort through horns sawed off animals slaughtered for meat. Right now, there is a shortage, he says, due to an epidemic keeping the animals from growing old enough to sprout horns. Still, he is able to put aside at least a few hundred to be shipped to his facility, where each one has to sit for a year to allow the soft bone tissue inside the hard keratin casing to dry out and shrivel for removal. After that, the horns are sterilized and the workers can begin the three- to four-hour process of readying each one for ritual use.

Along the way, many horns will have to be discarded. That is because Jewish law requires a shofar to be completely intact, without any cracks or holes. It cannot be patched — which is why many Jewish customers prefer buying a shofar that is certified, sort of like kosher food, assuring it has not been fixed with invisible epoxy.

The horns are heated carefully in order to straighten and shape the tip slightly as a mouthpiece before drilling a hole for the air to go through. Then they are polished, although many are left at least partially rough to preserve the natural look. Each is tested for sound quality as a final step.

Shaffier likes to use a large horn because it makes a nice sound and it is easier to sound. The smallest shofarot make a less pleasing squeak and are best as souvenirs.

“Anybody with any experience with wind instruments should have no problem with a shofar, but people who have never blown an instrument think it’s like blowing through a straw and don’t realize you have to vibrate your lips to get a sound out of it,” he says. “The sound is created by causing vibration. Put your lips together first and make that noise, and then bring the shofar to your lips.”

Mishan appears on Israeli Channel 2 every Yom Kippur eve for 10 minutes to explain the ins and outs of the shofar.

“You can watch me on the Internet as you prepare the meal for before the fast,” he says.

 
 
 
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